Smart Teddy Bear (and Other Toys): Eavesdropper or BFF?


The Norman Rockwell Christmas scene of the past was never without a huggable Teddy Bear. It was the depository of children’s secrets, and like a true friend kept mum. Fast-forward to 2017 and fluffy BFF is actually an interactive toy connected to smartphones through Bluetooth, wifi, and camera; fully capable of voice-recognition and geo-location. It could see you, talk to you, listen to you – and tell all.

My Friend Cayla, a very popular interactive doll has been outlawed in Germany because it was potentially hackable. There was a concern about where the recorded conversations are stored and how these are used. In the U.S., the FBI issued a consumer advisory on how “Internet-connected toys could present privacy and contact concerns for children”.

Connected Toys: Growth and Trends

Toys do more than just keep the child entertained. These are important learning tools that challenge a child’s creativity and develop problem-solving skills. However, with the developments in IoT, AR, and robotics, traditional toymakers like Hasbro and Mattel continuously struggle with coming up with toys that won’t be discarded barely after being unwrapped. Today’s children are so tech-savvy that passive playthings are almost a thing of the past, having been replaced by consoles, bots, apps, games, and the very popular smart toys. Some of today’s toys like Furby had earlier talking versions that were considered safer because the collection of information was limited and nothing was beamed externally via the Internet.

Smart toys or connected toys connect to the Internet through Wi-fi or Ethernet. However, they can also connect through Bluetooth, Android or iOS devices which is potentially dangerous since children are usually off-guard and not mindful of security when at play. The recorded conversation may inadvertently include sensitive personal information – like location and who the child is with. The most popular ones simulate life and are very “intelligent” and responsive. Talking toys, in particular, are equipped with microphones, sensors, and cameras which in a non-play situation could even be considered sinister.

Parental Guidance: Safety of Connected Toys

In 2015, Statista studied the concerns of French parents about smart toys. A whopping 57% feared that increased play time would erode school performance. 22% believed that their kids were constantly asked to purchase add-ons and apps online while 20% were apprehensive about the health effects of staying up late playing games. Still, connected toys enjoy a steady growth of over 10% annually since 2016 with no signs of slowing down until 2020 – despite fears of security and invasion of privacy.

“Voice recordings, toy Web application (parent app) passwords, home addresses, Wi-Fi information, or sensitive personal data could be exposed if the security of the data is not sufficiently protected” – FBI, July 17, 2017

According to the FBI, Internet-Connected toys are vulnerable because conversations stored either on servers or the cloud which makes it susceptible to hacking. In fact, the video below shows how these toys could be hacked!

Parents can keep well-loved toys safe by researching on updates, hacks, and known security issues. Allow playing only in areas that have secured Wi-fi access and always update software. PINs, passwords, and pairings should be kept secure and monitor the child at play. Always make sure that microphones and cameras are turned off when not in use and create strong passwords. Bear in mind that the information, when used by dubious entities, can turn your innocent Teddy into an eavesdropper.